In this space last year, we reported that Tom Brady will have played in a half-season’s worth of Super Bowl’s by the conclusion of Super Bowl LII vs. the Philadelphia Eagles.
It’s time to do some updating.
Brady and the Patriots are prepping for their ninth Super Bowl of the millennium on Sunday, and similar to last year, it’s a rematch of an oldie but goodie: the original, in fact, as New England is squaring off against the Los Angeles Rams, who were based in St. Louis back in the day for Super Bowl XXXVI, but we digress.
The 2018 Patriots lost back-to-back games by double digits for the first time since 2002. They failed to win 12 games in the regular season for the first time since 2009. All five of the teams they lost to in the regular season failed to make the playoffs.
Yet here we are, figuring out where they stack up against the eight other versions to make it as far as possible on the NFL calendar. They did go 8-0 at home for the seventh time under Brady and Bill Belichick, after all.
Not every Patriots team that’s brought a Lombardi Trophy back to Foxboro has been without its warts, nor should either loser be remembered solely as such. The main purpose of this exercise isn’t to figure out how each New England team stacked up with the rest of the NFL in hindsight; rather, it’s to figure out how each of the teams stacks up against each other.
For context, each team’s final regular season rank in total offense and total defense have been added in. But much more than the raw numbers went into determining which Brady/Bill Belichick Super Bowl team stands out above the rest.
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In reverse chronological order, here’s where the nine New England teams to play for the Lombardi Trophy this century stand:
2011 (Super Bowl XLVI)
Regular season: 13-3
Postseason: Won 45-10 vs. Denver Broncos, divisional round; Won 23-20 vs. Baltimore Ravens, AFC Championship Game; Lost 21-17 vs. New York Giants, Super Bowl XLVI
Offensive rank: 2 | Defensive rank: 31
It’s important to remember that the worst Patriots entry to the Super Bowl this millennium is still pretty darned good…but there are probably a few teams that wound up not making it to the big game (2012, 2015 certainly come to mind) which featured better rosters top to bottom than the 2011 crew.
There was still plenty to like, particularly on offense. Brady threw for a career-high 5,235 yards, Rob Gronkowski had 17 touchdown receptions and made First Team All-Pro for the first time and Wes Welker caught a franchise-record 122 passes.
Andre Carter and Mark Anderson became the first and to date only teammates in the Belichick era to reach double figures in sacks in the same season for the Patriots, with 10 each. That’s about where the compliments end for the defense, which in addition to being morbid against the pass (31st overall), was an un-Patriot-like middle of the road in scoring defense at 15th overall.
Much like the previous loss in the Super Bowl to the Giants, the Patriots were still in it to the bitter end. Much like in 2007, the better team did not win. The 2011 Giants remain the only team in NFL history to win the Super Bowl despite a negative point differential in the regular season (minus-6).
Truthfully, neither the Giants nor Patriots were worthy champions in 2011. The Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers should have faced off in Super Bowl XLVI, much like they wound up doing the next season. Billy Cundiff and Kyle Williams had other ideas, however.
2017 (Super Bowl LII)
Regular season: 13-3
Postseason: Won 35-14 vs. Tennessee Titans, divisional round; Won 24-20 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, AFC Championship Game; Lost 41-33 vs. Philadelphia Eagles, Super Bowl LII
Offensive rank: 1 | Defensive rank: 29
Brady wound up breaking his own record for passing yards in a Super Bowl vs. Philadelphia, with 505, eclipsing his total of 466…way back the previous year against Atlanta.
And it still wound up being the most lopsided of New England’s eight Super Bowl appearances, yet also just a one-score game.
Upon further review, the number of players not available for the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII as they tried to repeat as champions is staggering. Julian Edelman, Dont’a Hightower, Marcus Cannon, LeGarrette Blount, Malcolm Mitchell, Martellus Bennett, Logan Ryan, Chris Long and Rob Ninkovich were among the key players who helped factor in the comeback from 28-3 not available vs. the Eagles. Not to mention Malcolm Butler, but that’s another story for another time.
The reality is that New England’s 29th ranked defense picked the worst possible moment to rear its ugly head. There’s a very strong case to be made Butler would have made a difference had he received the precious snaps that went to Johnson Bademosi, but the absence of one player can’t account for giving up 41 points. This was a good Patriots team, but certainly not a great Patriots team.
2018 (Super Bowl LIII)
Regular season: 11-5
Postseason: Won 41-28 vs. Los Angeles Chargers, divisional round; Won 37-31(OT) at Kansas City Chiefs, AFC Championship Game; TBA vs. Los Angeles Rams, Super Bowl LIII.
Offensive rank: 5 | Defensive rank: 21
Those comparisons to 2006 on the offensive side of the ball were no joke at the beginning of the season, and that was before we realized Rob Gronkowski would be a shell of himself.
Far from Tom Brady’s best season, the Patriots have found themselves offensively later than ever before thanks to the return to Julian Edelman and the criminally-underappreciated James White, to go along with significant contributions on the ground from rookie Sony Michel.
Among the biggest X-factors for Sunday’s matchup will be New England’s offensive line vs. the LA defensive front, and it’s been yet another banner year for the Patriots in protecting Brady; minus Nate Solder and plus Trent Brown, Brady was sacked 14 fewer times in 2018 than the previous season, and is yet to hit the turf in the playoffs.
New England’s defense has two great individual talents in Trey Flowers and Stephon Gilmore, but the unit as a whole still lacks a true game-changing playmaker, which is a tremendous cause for concern against the fast-paced Rams offense come Sunday. If the Patriots do come up short, it’ll likely be because of issues on that side of the ball, likely causing the 2018 team to tumble even further down these rankings when we inevitably revisit them next year.
2016 (Super Bowl LI)
Regular season: 14-2
Postseason: Won 34-16 vs. Houston Texans, divisional round; Won 36-17 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, AFC Championship Game; Won 34-28 (OT) vs. Atlanta Falcons, Super Bowl LI
Offensive rank: 4 | Defensive rank: 8
While there was no Rob Gronkowski after Week 11, the Patriots got by just fine thanks to Brady’s NFL record 28-to-2 touchdown to interception ratio (min. 224 attempts).
An 8-0 record away from Gillette Stadium in the regular season is nothing to sneeze at, nor were LeGarrette Blount’s 18 rushing touchdowns – a team record.
But had New England not erased a 25-point deficit in the Super Bowl, there’s a good chance this team is much further down the list. Consider the previous record for the largest comeback was 10 points (accomplished three times, once up a Patriots team further up this list), the ’16 group is able to stay clear of the basement.
2001 (Super Bowl XXXVI)
Regular season: 11-5
Postseason: Won 16-13 (OT) vs. Oakland Raiders, divisional round; Won 24-17 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, AFC Championship Game; Won 20-17 vs. St. Louis Rams, Super Bowl XXXVI
Offensive rank: 19 | Defensive rank: 24
As it relates to the Patriots dynasty, the uniqueness of 2001 stands out because almost nothing like it had ever transpired before. True, New England had two Super Bowl appearances in franchise history, including one just five years earlier. But neither of the first two runs began with a franchise quarterback who had just signed the largest contract in league history suffering potentially life-threatening injuries in the second game of the season. And certainly, neither of the first two runs featured a second-year quarterback drafted in the sixth round suddenly thrust into starting duty with only three career passing attempts to his name.
Brady taking over for Drew Bledsoe altered NFL history. It turned the league on its head, a wheel the league still hasn’t stopped from spinning.
The best single-season story? It’s the 2001 Patriots and it’s not even close. The original almost always is. To call it the best team, however, is another matter entirely.
Incredibly, Brady’s five game-winning drives in 2001 is a total he didn’t match again until 2013. The notion of him being merely a “game-manager” in these days is exaggerated; look no further than the final drive of Super Bowl XXXVI. But aside from Troy Brown, who had a career year with 101 catches for 1,199 yards, there wasn’t much weaponry on offense yet. The underrated David Patten (51) and Kevin Faulk (30) were the only other players to surpass 30 catches.
The defense gets this group into the middle of the pack, with some holdovers from the 1996 Super Bowl runner-up team (Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Lawyer Milloy, Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson) and some fresh blood (free agents Mike Vrabel and Roman Phifer, rookie first-round draft pick Richard Seymour). Save for Milloy, all of those players were on the roster through the 2004 season. Bruschi, Vrabel and Seymour still had plenty to offer in 2007, even.
2003 (Super Bowl XXXVIII)
Regular season: 14-2
Postseason: Won 17-14 vs. Tennessee Titans, divisional round; Won 24-14 vs. Indianapolis Colts, AFC Championship Game; Won 32-29 vs. Carolina Panthers, Super Bowl XXXVIII
Offensive rank: 17 | Defensive rank: 7
Though Brady led the league in passing touchdowns a year earlier, with 28, his ceiling remained unclear. A 31-0 loss to the Bills in the season opener, complete with Lawyer Milloy sacking Brady less than a week after his unceremonious release from New England, cast the first of many dark shadows over the organization asking if the run was over – in this case before it had even truly begun.
Blowing teams out wasn’t yet in the Patriots vernacular, as New England won only one game all season by more than two scores. What’s important is that the team did begin to win after the Buffalo debacle… a lot. A Week 5 win over the Titans was the beginning of an NFL record 21-game winning streak (including the postseason) that stretched into 2004.
The Patriots didn’t miss Milloy, as free agent signing Rodney Harrison stepped in seamlessly at safety. Along with the rest of the holdovers from the 2001 defense, New England allowed the fewest points in the league (238, or 14.9 per game).
2014 (Super Bowl XLIX)
Regular season: 12-4
Postseason: Won 35-31 vs. Baltimore Ravens, divisional round; Won 45-7 vs. Indianapolis Colts, AFC Championship Game; Won 28-24 vs. Seattle Seahawks, Super Bowl XLIX
Offensive rank: 11 | Defensive rank: 13
Did the 2014 Patriots take it a bit too literally when it came to the idea that November and December are more important than September? You bet. When analyst Trent Dilfer now infamously said “let’s face it, they’re not good anymore” after the Patriots fell to the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football in Week 4, 41-14, he wasn’t necessarily wrong.
Order was restored when New England, then 2-2, blew out the Cincinnati Bengals the following week and the rest is history. The Patriots lost only one meaningful game the rest of the way (Week 17’s loss to the Buffalo Bills, with home-field advantage already sealed up, doesn’t count) as a promising mix of young defensive players such as Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins mixed with mainstays Devin McCourty and Vince Wilfork and highly-touted imports Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to form a defense far more daunting than its metrics suggest.
Not that it factors in the final ranking, but the postseason this year also made for the best theater of this run by far. Multiple comebacks from 14-down against the Ravens and the entire fourth quarter against the Seahawks – which featured a 10-point New England comeback – made for two of the best all-around games, while the laugher against the Colts launched the 19-month soap opera known only as #DeflateGate. Add in the fact that this was New England’s first title in 10 years, the stakes couldn’t have been higher.
2007 (Super Bowl XLII)
Regular season: 16-0
Postseason: Won 31-20 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, divisional round; Won 21-12 vs. San Diego Chargers, AFC Championship Game; Lost 17-14 vs. New York Giants, Super Bowl XLII
Offensive rank: 1 | Defensive rank: 4
Unquestionably, the greatest offense not only in team history, but perhaps in NFL history. New England scored a then-NFL record 589 points, Brady threw for a then-record 50 touchdown passes, Randy Moss hauled in a still-record 23 touchdowns and Wes Welker ignited the slot receiver renaissance. If not for a career special teamer making what would be the final catch of his NFL career in the Super Bowl, the 2007 Patriots would sit not only atop of these rankings, but be atop the list of the greatest NFL teams ever assembled.
Warning signs were present throughout the second half of the season that the Patriots weren’t infallible, though. Those pesky Giants gave New England all it could handle in a Week 17 game which completed the unbeaten regular season for the Patriots in a 38-35 victory at the Meadowlands. Even though Brady completed a league record 92.9 percent of his passes in the divisional game against the Jaguars, the game was tied at the half. Brady threw three picks in a sloppy win over the Chargers to get to the Super Bowl.
After averaging 36.8 points per game in the regular season, the Patriots mustered only 14 in their rematch with the Giants.
So many times under Belichick, New England has played its best football of the season in November and December after finding itself in September and October. The reverse was true in 2007, and they still came this close to being the only 19-0 team in league history.
2004 (Super Bowl XXXIX)
Regular season: 14-2
Postseason: Won 20-3 vs. Indianapolis Colts, divisional round; Won 41-27 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, AFC Championship Game; Won 24-21 vs. Philadelphia Eagles, Super Bowl XXXIX
Offensive rank: 7 | Defensive rank: 9
By 2004, Brady had proven that he was no fluke. His numbers still weren’t the flashiest and pale in comparison to what we’re used to today, but they didn’t need to be that season. Not with a bona fide No. 1 option at running back in Corey Dillon.
After years and years of production only accompanied by misery with the Cincinnati Bengals, Dillon exploded for a career-high 1,635 yards rushing, a number which remains the franchise record for a single season. The presence of Dillon alone is enough to bump the 2004 team over its immediate predecessor in 2003, which featured many of the same stars on defense.
Ty Law tore up his foot in the middle of the season, which wound up being the end of his tenure in New England, but the core of the ’01 and ’03 defenses remained intact. A young nose tackle out of the University of Miami named Vince Wilfork also came aboard as one of the team’s first-round picks in the draft.
Brady’s status as an all-time great was cemented when the Patriots captured their third Super Bowl in four seasons, even at the ripe age of 27. He’s cemented himself as the greatest to ever play the position by now, regardless of what happens on Sunday or in subsequent seasons. Both he and Bill Belichick are running up the score on everyone who’s come before them, as well as everyone who’ll come after.
Knowing Brady – who said there’s “zero” chance Sunday is his final game – there’s a pretty good chance these rankings could need a revision around this time next year.